Little Ships of Horror

Little Ships of Horror

Marcus Rediker’s breathtaking “human history” of the slave ship reveals how the transatlantic slave trade demeaned everyone it touched.


“Every man condemns the [slave] trade in general,” wrote the abolitionist Thomas Cooper, of Manchester, England, in 1787, “but it requires the exhibition of particular instances of the enormity of this Commerce, to induce those to become active in the matter, who wish well to the cause upon the whole.” Those accounts of the trade that present “particular distress, with its attendant circumstances,” are best “calculated to excite compassion.” Such were the principles of the British campaign against the slave trade at the end of the eighteenth century, as historian Marcus Rediker explains. And this emphasis on itemizing particular instances describes just as well the approach that guides Rediker’s breathtaking new book on the eighteenth-century Atlantic slave trade.

The Slave Ship opens with an extensive and unforgettable inventory of the trade’s particular horrors. There are the accused conspirators in a failed slave ship revolt forced by their captors to eat the hearts and livers of the recently executed. A captive starves himself to death after several unsuccessful attempts to rip open his throat with his fingernails. A black sailor accused of fomenting an insurrection gets pinned to the mast by the ship’s captain, who leaves him to rot to death without food or water over the course of three weeks. Sharks trail slave ships from one edge of the Atlantic to the other, overgrown by the time they reach Jamaica from feeding on human carcasses tossed overboard en route. Captains embrace the spectacle of grisly executions with devilish glee. The desecration of human bodies becomes at once efficient, whimsical and sadistic. A London merchant orders the captain of his ship to brand each captive with the first initials of his wife’s and daughter’s names. One master lowers a shrieking woman feet first into the Atlantic; when “she was drawn up” moments later, according to Rediker, “it was found that a shark…had bit her off from the middle.” The Atlantic slave trade has been the subject of rigorous historical study for more than four decades, but no previous work comes as close to conveying its terror.

Rediker describes The Slave Ship as a “human history.” By this he means, in the first place, that there are people in the story–not aggregates, not statistics, not categories, but individuals. His approach stands in sharp contrast to the mode of analysis that has dominated the study of the Atlantic slave trade since the late 1960s, when historians began to seek reliable numbers–the number of captives shipped from Africa, mortality rates in the middle passage, sex ratios on board slave ships, average rates of profit, the relative importance of specific ports of embarkation in Africa and arrival in the Americas. This research, which continues apace, has revolutionized the economic and demographic history of the early modern era. There’s no better example of this revolution than the extraordinary database compiled by a team of historians led by David Eltis of Emory University, which, to date, provides documentation for approximately 30,000 voyages from the late fifteenth century to the last half of the nineteenth–a database that Rediker often mines to good effect in this book.

Yet lost in this welter of numbers, too often, are those aspects of the history less amenable to quantification. “Even the best histories of the slave trade and slavery,” Rediker writes, “have tended to minimize, one might even say sanitize, the violence and terror that lay at the heart of their subjects.” Indeed, for historian Philip Curtin, who launched the “numbers game” with his 1969 The Atlantic Slave Trade: A Census, the emotions that the subject stirs recommended even more powerfully a commitment to dispassionate analysis. “The evils of the slave trade,” he wrote, “can be taken for granted as a point long since proven beyond dispute.” But those injunctions now prove increasingly dissatisfying to an emerging generation of scholars interested less in enumeration than in the history of immiseration. In writing about topics such as mortality rates in the Atlantic slave trade, literary critic Ian Baucom recently insisted that we attend not only to the cumulative numbers, to the many thousands gone, but also to the sound of each corpse hitting the water one at a time.

It is this concern with the texture of individual experience, with the minutiae of misery and the ordeal of its endurance, that decides the shape and content of The Slave Ship. Rediker offers a view not so much from the bottom up as from the inside out. The personal testimony of captives, sailors and captains carry this account so that we may know the slave ship in the way that those who lived it knew it then. This approach, inevitably, leads Rediker to neglect what historians know now but actors at the time could not fully know–information fundamental to any comprehensive understanding of the slave trade’s history. A reader new to the subject will learn only a little about where captives came from and almost nothing about where they went (assuming they had survived the middle passage) once they disembarked. The fundamentals of the Atlantic economy in the eighteenth century receive only passing mention. There is little attempt to sketch change over time. And as Rediker readily acknowledges, there is no effort to assess the ways that British and American slave voyages might have differed from the practices of other nations. But these subjects, to varying degrees, have been addressed by others. By choosing to set these questions aside, Rediker is able to go much further than others have before in describing what the slave ship was like. And few have worked harder to recover the countless stories preserved in published memoirs, remote provincial archives and records assembled by the British Parliament to investigate the slave trade at the height of the abolition movement. Even those who know the subject well will be surprised by the details that Rediker unearths. The Slave Ship is rich with anecdotes–so rich, in fact, that the book never feels anecdotal. Instead, what emerges is a fine-grained account of everyday savagery.

This command of the subject shows not only in Rediker’s knowledge of the sources but also in his precise depictions of life at sea. Few historians at work today know the age of sail better. The virtues on display here–eloquence, empathy, erudition–are characteristic. His previous books treated the social history of merchant seamen, the golden age of piracy and revolutionary politics in Atlantic port towns. In each of these books, Rediker presented the growth of merchant capitalism in the late seventeenth and eighteenth centuries as a pivotal moment in the making of the modern world and in the transformation of the world of work. The deepening networks of Atlantic exchange called into existence a growing merchant marine whose labor made the emerging economy go, although they profited little from the new economy and suffered much from its toils. Those sailors responded by recognizing that they shared a common identity. They forged an oppositional culture in response. In some instances, they turned to piracy. At times they sought out alliances with the dispossessed in the colonies, such as slaves and indentured servants. Before the Industrial Revolution, Rediker has suggested, there emerged a class identity that gave sailors and port town workers a sense of collective purpose. And before the American Revolution, it was Atlantic seamen and their brethren on shore who conceived and practiced precocious ideals of equality and liberty. To know the making of the modern world, Rediker has insisted, we must know the history of the sea.

In The Slave Ship, his fifth book, he prepares the way by offering a tour of the slave ship itself. The vessel, he explains, took on varied purposes from one moment to the next. It was at different times a floating warehouse, an open-air market, a workplace, a prison and a factory that transformed captives into commodities. Rediker describes slave ship construction, the distribution of responsibilities assigned to the crew, the variations in ship design and scale, and the administration and allocation of space on board. On these subjects he is a sure-footed and knowledgeable guide. When presenting how captives in Africa reached the Atlantic shore and the waiting slave ships, he relies rather more on the expertise of others. Here too, though, he has read widely and deeply in the relevant scholarly literature. And his mastery of the slave ship’s special characteristics allows him to convey fully the shock and fear such vessels would inspire among enslaved men, women and children who had never seen them before.

The Slave Ship is, however, less about slave ships per se than about the people who found themselves on them. The heart of the study lies with an extended assessment of captains, captives and crew. Rediker works his way up the social hierarchy through biographical chapters on Olaudah Equiano, the slave ship sailor James Stanfield and slave ship master (and later evangelical convert and slave trade opponent) John Newton. All three wrote extensively and precisely about what life on a slave ship entailed. Rediker then works back down the ladder of authority to explore, more broadly, the art of brutality at sea, the experience of slave ship work among the free and the contours of captivity. The slave ship, Rediker notices, demeaned everyone it touched.

“Learning cruelty was intrinsic to learning the trade itself,” Rediker writes. For the slave ship captain, it was “a requirement of the job and the larger economic system it served.” At sea, he held within himself every element of authority and command typically distributed more widely through the institutions of social, political and legal authority on land. Each slave ship stood as a despotic state in miniature. But if the captain was an absolute sovereign in his domain, he was also an employee and partner, a principal agent in a heavily capitalized commercial enterprise, the profits of which turned upon the delivery of captives, not corpses. So the captain had to combine the arts of commercial negotiation and economic calculation with the imperatives of carefully calibrated cruelty. In Rediker’s telling, the brutality of the slave trade lay not only in the sometimes casual and sadistic destruction of human life but also in the callous “moral insensibility” that it induced. So, for example, Rediker presents us with the striking image of the pious John Newton rehearsing passages from Scripture while strolling across what he called his “peaceful kingdom” as he prepared to purchase 250 captives on the coast of Sierra Leone. The slave ship produced not only slaves but monsters too.

Rediker dwells on the terror of the middle passage to inform as well as to horrify. To know what became of Africans in the Americas, we must first come to terms with what they came through. Rediker calls attention to the choices slaves made in a setting conceived and designed to forbid willed activity completely. The prisoners thwarted their captors as far as the ghastly circumstances permitted. They seized weapons. They threw themselves overboard. They refused to eat. When unable to lash out at the crew, they sometimes turned on one another. Rediker devotes particular attention to the distinctive experience of enslaved women, far more than most who have written about the middle passage to date. Because slave ship captains regarded women and children as less of a threat to revolt, these prisoners often were allowed more freedom of movement on the ship. This freedom of movement, predictably, helps explain the key roles some women played in shipboard insurrections. A great many more, though, only suffered additional indignities and abuse. Captain and crew raped women and girls with impunity. More than a few captains seem to have done so systematically. And Rediker guesses “that some men signed on to slaving voyages in the first place precisely because they wanted unrestricted access to the bodies of African women.”

The account of the captives’ experience, however, extends beyond the themes of victimization and resistance. Rediker presents striking evidence detailing how captives coped. On one ship enslaved women sing in unison of their despair and longing for home. On another, an enslaved woman offers a long oration of sorrow to other women and girls, who surround her in a series of concentric circles that mark the listeners’ age and status. The slave community, Rediker suggests, first took shape on the slave ship, not on the plantation. Previous scholars have speculated about the kinds of relationships that developed among slaves during the middle passage. But no one has done more than Rediker to document the limits that the circumstances imposed or the possibilities they permitted.

The sailors, the men in between, emerge here at once as tormentors and victims. Often drawn into the work by either poverty or deceit, some seamen in the trade described their fate as worse than slavery. Although Rediker emphatically rejects such claims, he does give extended attention to sailors’ own special hell. Because they were laborers rather than a capital investment, slave ship sailors were more disposable than the captives. As a consequence, in part, they perished with even greater frequency. Many met desperate, lonely deaths from disease on the West African coast. Others died en route to the Americas as the unsanitary conditions of the ship wreaked havoc on workers and captives alike. With astonishing frequency, men broken or disabled by service in the trade were abandoned to poverty and despair in the port towns of the Americas. Rediker is probably the first to call attention to the legacy of misery the trade left among those who made it go. It is not a surprise, then, to learn that a loathing of the slave ship seems to have been common among them. Mutiny and desertion occurred with some frequency. The two or three thousand sailors who led an uprising in Liverpool in August 1775 targeted the property of slave merchants in particular.

Yet, as Rediker is careful to note, these protests aimed not to abolish the slave trade but to improve payment and working conditions within it. In The Slave Ship, he does not assume that the oppressed found a common interest across racial lines, as he tended to do in some of his earlier work. “Victims of poverty, deception, and violence themselves,” slave ship sailors, Rediker writes, “took out their plight on the even more abject and powerless captives under their supervision and control.” On the middle passage, in the months and weeks that they served as prison guards, their racial status as “whites” briefly mitigated the disadvantages of class. If sailors did not, on their own, become abolitionists, they were in an unusually good position to testify to slavery’s brutalities. In a highly original chapter on the early antislavery movement in Britain, Rediker finds that the testimony of sailors made abolitionist propaganda particularly plausible and compelling. Moral denunciations carried far more weight when coupled with detailed descriptions of particular abuses. “Real enlightenment,” Rediker writes, “began not with a Scottish philosopher or a member of Parliament, but rather in the meeting of a sailor and a slave amid the ‘instruments of woe’ on board the ‘vast machine.'” Thomas Clarkson, the lead propagandist for the London abolition committee, understood the strategic value of slave ship sailor accounts particularly well. Sailors knew the character of the trade better than anyone. And their sufferings promised to draw special concern from those statesmen less interested in the morals of the trade than in its impact on the lives of those men upon whom the imperial state would depend in time of war. The oral histories that Clarkson collected on the docks of Liverpool, Bristol and London yielded the evidence that abolitionists presented to Parliament, and provided the basis for countless antislavery pamphlets and poetry. Sailor testimony informed, as well, the text that accompanied the famous depiction of the slave ship Brooks, the visual image that came to represent then and thereafter what a fully loaded slave ship looked like, an image that Rediker demonstrates, incredibly, to have been a “graphic understatement.”

Fittingly, this first history of the slave ship concludes with an extended assessment of the making and circulation of this most famous of images. Its design began with a simple description recorded by an officer of the Royal Navy who had been dispatched to Liverpool to measure the dimensions and tonnage of representative slave ships. The Brooks, as Rediker quotes from an eighteenth-century source, was “well known in the trade,” embarking 5,163 captives from Africa in ten different voyages over more than two decades. What was not well known, though, was what a fully loaded ship looked like. So, working from the measurements and its declared carrying capacity, an antislavery committee in Plymouth, England, transformed the raw data into an emblem of atrocity; 1,500 copies of the image were circulated in England in 1788. The Brooks became “a central image of the age, hanging in public places during petition drives and in homes and taverns around the Atlantic.” It served as a backdrop to debates in Parliament during the first thrust of antislavery organizing, from 1788 to 1792. And it was reprinted and distributed abroad, in Philadelphia, New York and Paris, carrying the British antislavery movement beyond the British Isles. For the abolitionists, the Brooks distilled an essential truth about the trade. “It depicted the violence and terror of the ship,” Rediker explains, “and at the same time it captured the brutal logic and cold, rational mentality of the merchant’s business…. It was itself a concentration of capital, and it was the bearer of capitalist assumptions and practices about the world and the way it ought to be.”

These closing thoughts, in some ways, point up one shortcoming of The Slave Ship. Rediker largely neglects the merchant capitalists who put the ships in the water. Their ambitions and purposes remain largely offstage. The result is to direct attention to the most immediate consequences of slave ship voyages–the brutality of life on board–rather than the comparably immediate causes that set these voyages in motion. The critique of the eighteenth-century economic order does not quite center, then, on those who might have been its principal targets–the investors in slave ships, the producers of plantation crops and the consumers of slave-produced goods. Rediker, though, in this work, is less interested in developing a critique of the Atlantic economy than in dissecting the anatomy of terror and understanding its most immediate social consequences. He does draw attention throughout to the ways this history resonates into the present day, both in the creation of a racial order in the Atlantic world and with the casual destruction of human life at a distance through the imperatives of global trade. And at the close, he invokes the fleeting but thought-provoking evidence that shows slaves and ex-sailors assisting one another in the work of survival in Atlantic port towns and in the reckoning with death. Rediker closes with an account of enslaved men and women nursing diseased and mangled slave ship sailors back to health or, as was often necessary, arranging a proper burial in a “negro” cemetery.

In these ways, The Slave Ship restates and extends imperatives at work in Rediker’s earlier books. The Slave Ship is at once impassioned and restrained. This is because the “darkness and violence” needs no embellishment. It only requires, as Thomas Clarkson knew and as Rediker demonstrates, a skilled advocate to tell the story. This year and the next mark the bicentennial of slave trade abolition in the British Empire and in the United States, events that, properly, have been marked by commemorations of various kinds on both sides of the Atlantic. This landmark work provides a timely and unforgettable reminder of what was abolished and hints also, indeed, at what was not.

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